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THE AGELESS QUEST FOR HEALTH & HAPPINESS ALONG THE BLUE RIDGE
Diana Christopulos works tirelessly to preserve and improve Virginia’s natural resources
Putting heart and sole into mall walking
What drives political volunteers
Lessons in long-distance grandparenting
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Diana Christopulos, who brought innate talents and a wealth of experiences to the Roanoke Valley, is passionate about improving quality of life in the region and beyond. B
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ince landing in the Roanoke Valley 13 years ago, Diana Christopulos has been on a mission to preserve, protect and improve the vast beauty of Virginia’s natural resources. Her volunteer work isn’t limited to clean air, pure water and pristine viewsheds; she also participates in the selection process for the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, serves with the Salem Red Sox Booster Club and helps determine which organizations will receive grants from the Roanoke Women’s Foundation. “Diana has made such an impact in our community. She’s not from here, and she hasn’t been here that long, but she’s accomplished more than most people do in their lifetime,” says Dotsy Clifton, a friend and member of the Roanoke Women’s Foundation board of directors. Christopulos, 68, is not a typical retiree. She spends much of her time trying to handle nuisance bears on the Appalachian Trail, researching geologic formations to educate people about the effects of the proposed Mountain Valley natural gas pipeline and hiking as many as 20 miles in a day. Christopulos and her longtime partner Mark McClain took the valley by storm almost from the
PHOTO COURTESY OF MARK MCCLAIN
Diana Christopulos of Salem looks out over the Appalachian Trail from the McAfee Knob VA-311 trailhead parking lot in Catawba. She is president of the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club.
ERICA YOON | THE ROANOKE TIMES
Diana Christopulos and Mark McClain attend the Roanoke Appalachian Trail Club Happy Hiker Hour at Parkway Brewing Company in Salem.
PHOTO COURTESY OF SUSAN POWELL
Diana Christopulos (front row, second from left) and members of the McAfee Knob Task Force are pictured on Vest Day, when volunteer trainees received their vests, in the fall of 2015.
AT RIGHT Christopulos climbs Mount Washington in New Hampshireâ€™s White Mountains.
COURTESY OF DIANA CHRISTOPULOS
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR OF VIRGINIA
ABOVE Christopulos speaks with Tim Kaine, vicepresidential nominee and former governor of Virginia. The two, along with Joyce Waugh, president and CEO of Roanoke Regional Chamber of Commerce, talked about green business initiatives in Roanoke in 2009.
moment they arrived, with organizations clamoring for their input and participation. “I think their brains just have endless capacity,” says Linda Pharis, who serves with Christopulos on the board of the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy. “If you read about all of her accomplishments, you’d probably think that she’s very driven and hard-core, but she’s easygoing and relaxed.” Christopulos says her life wasn’t always easy-going and relaxed, and that the one constant was change. “Sometimes you have to step back, assess things and plot a new course.”
Constant motion Christopulos was born at Warren Air Force Base in Cheyenne, Wyoming, but her earliest memory is of getting off a plane in Wiesbaden, Germany. As the child of a serviceman, she became accustomed to being uprooted many times while growing up. “My mom’s side of the family has been in the U.S. since before the American Revolution, but my dad’s side were recent immigrants from Greece,” she says. The family returned to the United States when she was 5, and Christopulos says she vividly recalls sailing into the New York Harbor on a military ship, awestruck by the Statue of Liberty. “I’ve often thought that must be how the immigrants felt when arriving at Ellis Island,” she says. The family lived in Colorado Springs, Colorado; Northern Virginia; and Honolulu, Hawaii, before her father was transferred to Omaha, Nebraska, when she was in middle school. “From Honolulu to Omaha. What a letdown for a teenager,” she remembers. Christopulos attended Cornell University in New York, where she majored in history and earned a fellowship to get her master’s and doctorate at the State University of New York at Binghamton.
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At the American Heart Association’s headquarters in Dallas, Christopulos served as the director of training and development, organizing events such as a five-day interactive conference for 800 in New Orleans. She rose to vice president of planning and human resources, but after seven years of 70-plus hours a week, she’d had enough. “When I was 39 years old, I jumped off the corporate jet, as one of my friends put it,” she says. “I gave myself six months to do nothing other than decide what I wanted to
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they’re not going to make us take women, too.” “This was at a time when job listings read ‘Help Wanted – Male’ and ‘Help Wanted – Female.’ The limitations were there,” she says. “Glass ceiling is such a good term, because you don’t see it until you bang your head against it.” Christopulos excelled and began providing training in organizational development and educational testing while still teaching. That led to work as a consultant until one of her clients, the American Heart Association, wooed her away from academia.
S E T T I N G
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do [for a career], but I had a scholarship, so I went to grad school,” she recalls. She looked into Binghamton’s study abroad options, and chose Mexico “because the weather was better.” She traveled extensively, developing a keen interest in the archaeological ruins and a desire for wanderlust. Christopulos taught history for five years at Hartwick College, a small liberal arts school in New York that she says is similar to Roanoke College. “Out of a department of 40 in Social Sciences, I was the only female,” she says. “Times were different then. When I was an undergraduate, I asked one of my professors for a recommendation for grad school. He said, ‘I don’t understand why you don’t want to stay home like my wife.’ “ Racial attitudes were different, as well. In 1969, a group of black students took over a building at Cornell to protest the burning of a cross outside a dorm for black students. To alleviate the tension, the university agreed to many of the protestors’ demands, such as funding an Afro-American Studies Center and taking steps to accept more minorities. Christopulos recalls being horrified to hear a professor say, “We’ve already had to take two black students. I hope
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do in the future.” She saw an advertisement in Smithsonian magazine for a riverrunning excursion on the Green River in Utah. Christopulos had never been rafting and hadn’t done much camping, but decided to give it a shot. During the trip, she had an epiphany. “On day 3, it was super hot so the guides told us we needed to eat all of the ice cream before it melted and then take a nap. That sounded like the way to live life.” Ultimately, she decided to start her own consulting firm, Christopulos Custom Management Systems, in Dallas. Her client list included everything from Fortune 100 clients such as Hunt-Wesson and Xerox, to small nonprofits.
PHOTO ABOVE COURTESY OF DIANA CHRISTOPULOS; PHOTO BELOW BY ERICA YOON | THE ROANOKE TIMES
ABOVE As a child, Christopulos lived for a time in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Here, she faces Pikes Peak in the distance. BELOW Christopulos walks on the Appalachian Trail in Catawba near the McAfee Knob VA-311 trailhead parking lot. She came up with the idea of training volunteers to help monitor the trail.
Kathryn Herndon, coordinator of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Outreach, knows how difficult hiking the entire Appalachian Trail is; she did it herself. “I did it right after college, and I did it straight through. Diana did it in sections, which is much more difficult. It takes tons of dedication and a lot of logistics to plan all of those segments,” she says. “Stopping and starting takes a very organized person.”
Appalachian Trail Club board and serves with her on the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy board. “Diana is the de facto leader among volunteers in the Roanoke environmental community,” he says, which is lofty praise coming from the man who served under President Jimmy Carter as assistant secretary of Agriculture, Conservation, Research and Education.
Cutler took Andrew Downs, regional director of the After only a couple of years in the area, Christopulos Appalachian Trail Conservancy, under his wing when and McClain founded the Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Downs was new in town. “Rupe was eager for me to meet Coalition, an organization dedicated to reducing global Diana,” Downs says. “Diana and I work shoulder-to-shoulwarming through small steps and big measures. der to address the possible impacts the pipeline might Joyce Waugh, president and CEO of Roanoke Regional have. She does market research, viewshed analysis and Chamber of Commerce, worked with the couple on devel- studies the nature of the gas market. She has the methodoping the Cool Green Biz program. ology to make a game plan and see it through.” “The beauty of the program was its flexibility. BusinessPharis says the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy was es could choose bronze, silver or gold status depending eager to get Christopulos on its board because of the on what their resources were,” she says. “Maybe a comreputation she established through the Cool Cities Coalipany downtown didn’t have tion. “She came on the board the funds to install energyduring the early stages of efficient windows, but they the pipeline discussions. She could still get on board by knew all about the geology setting up a recycling proof it and brought a Ph.D. level gram.” to our discussions with FERC Christopulos also serves [Federal Energy Regulatory on the Chamber’s Public Commission]. Policy Council, which helps “When Diana speaks, peothe Chamber determine its ple lean forward to listen,” legislative agenda. Pharis says. “This is a very “Diana presents herself hands-on board. We roll up very well. She’s passionate our sleeves, drop our egos ERICA YOON | THE ROANOKE TIMES about certain things but she and look for solutions.” Christopulos, who has run in all but one Blue Ridge always takes a measured Clifton of the Roanoke Half Marathon, shows off some of her finisher medals. approach. She does her Women’s Foundation says homework and she goes out the foundation gives away on-site to see things for herself,” Waugh says. “The issues $300,000 in grants each year to area nonprofits. The proare not necessarily easy and sometimes there’s quite a cess requires board members to do careful on-site visits bit of hashing things out in the committee. She’s always before rendering a decision. respectful in her approach and comments.” “I’m always so delighted when I get paired with Diana Environmentalist and former Roanoke City Councilman to do site visits,” she says. “Before the visit, she researches Rupert Cutler served on the initial board of Cool Cities. every single thing. She has a strong, analytical mind.” “Diana and Mark began by distributing energy-conservBill Hackworth says he “put in dibs” to work with Chrising light bulbs. Then they encouraged the local city coun- topulos on the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy. cils and boards of supervisors to measure their carbon “Her work to oppose the Mountain Valley pipeline footprints and pledge to reduce emissions and reduce project and the clear and concise information she has energy consumption.” provided to the board on this issue helped convince our Cutler also notes that Christopulos and McClain have board to adopt a resolution opposing the adverse envibeen “very willing to step up and advocate against moun- ronmental impacts that the MVP project would have on taintop removal. They’ve researched wind turbines, uraseveral counties ... and especially the impact it would have nium mining and the Mountain Valley Pipeline.” on viewsheds, the Blue Ridge Parkway and the AppalaCutler pushed for Christopulos to join the Roanoke chian National Scenic Trail.”
Battling bears Kathryn Herndon with the Appalachian Trail Conservancy says that board members had developed considerable frustration from the heavy use, and often abuse, by hikers of several popular trails. “It’s a challenge to manage such beloved, popular resources like McAfee Knob, Tinker Ridge and Dragon’s Tooth,” she says. Since 1986, the ATC had had a single, seasonal employee to help monitor the heavily traveled portions of the trail. Problems burgeoned as the number of hikers increased, leading to nuisance bears attracted by trash left behind, illegal campfires and, in some cases, destruction of the trail fixtures. “I would definitely credit Diana with coming in and looking at the positives. She encouraged everyone to look for a way to solve the problem,” Herndon says. “She came up with the idea of recruiting and training 30 volunteers to help monitor the trail. They each agree to go out and patrol one weekend day a month from April to October. Now, we’ve got trained people who can not only count the number of hikers and the trash carried out, but also educate people about what’s blooming and get them
excited about the area and its natural resources.” Membership in the trail club is growing rapidly, Herndon says. “Diana is all over social media, getting the word out. She’s so good at identifying what volunteers’ strengths and interests are so she can match them with a fulfilling task.”
R&R McClure insists that his and Christopulos’ lives allow plenty of time for recreation and relaxation. “On a typical day, we have breakfast and then we both go to our home offices to work,” he says. “Right now, I’m working mostly on my crossword puzzle business, and Diana works relentlessly on the pipeline issue. Other than running the trail club, that’s been occupying most of her time.” At 5 o’clock, McClain says they pull the plug to watch TV and have dinner. They rarely miss a Salem Red Sox game and enjoy wine tastings and visits to local brew pubs. “It’s not all work,” he says. After moving so many times, Christopulos says Salem is their permanent home. “I have never had a twinge of regret about selecting this area. I think I’ll always have plenty of projects to keep me busy.”
ERICA YOON | THE ROANOKE TIMES
Diana Christopulos carries a Blue Ridge Land Conservancy flag as she passes Guy Byrd of the Roanoke Kiwanis Club. They were among the participants in a 20-mile relay in April from Carvins Cove to the Mill Mountain Star to celebrate 20 years of the Blue Ridge Land Conservancy and to highlight the conservation and accessibility to the public of both places. TIMELESS